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A day in the life of... Dr Frances Turrell

What has been your career path so far?

I’d say my career started at the University of Manchester where I completed a degree in Biochemistry. I then went to Imperial College London to study a Masters in Cancer Biology, before moving to Cambridge where I completed my PhD at the Medical Research Council Cancer Unit in 2017.  

What is your role? 

I’m a Postdoctoral Training Fellow in the Molecular Cell Biology team headed by Professor Clare Isacke at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre. I have my own research project and am responsible for planning and carrying out experiments to drive the project forward. There is always a variation in the type of experiments I am doing, using different techniques and equipment from day to day. I also help supervise a PhD student in our group. 

Could you give us a brief description of your current project?

When breast cancer spreads to other parts of the body, it’s called secondary breast cancer and at that point it becomes incurable. My work involves investigating what causes the spread of breast cancer to other sites within the body. Specifically, I am exploring what controls the growth of the breast cancer cells at these sites away from the breast.

Some cancer cells will reach the secondary site, like bones or lungs, and survive there, but will not grow to form a tumour immediately – they will remain in an inactive ‘dormant’ state. In some cases, these dormant cells reawaken and start to grow and form secondary tumours. I am investigating what controls which state – active or inactive – breast cancer cells choose when they spread to other sites around the body.  

Could you give us some insight into the impact of this project?

Some people who have had breast cancer relapse with secondary disease years after removal and treatment of the primary breast tumour. This may be because the cancer cells that have been lying in the inactive dormant state in other organs have been reactivated and start to grow. Understanding how and why these cells are reactivated may uncover potential ways to prevent them from waking up and forming incurable secondary disease. 

What does your typical day involve?

I wake up at around 7am and travel into work on a train and then a London hire bike. I grab a coffee and check my emails and then start whatever experiments I have planned for the day. Between doing experimental work I’ll usually be either analysing data or attending meetings and seminars, or getting a quick lunch from the canteen. After I’ve finished my work most days I’ll head off to water polo training in the evenings.

What has been your most memorable work moment?

I have two: passing my PhD viva and having my first research paper published. These were both a result of several years of hard work and happened to occur quite close in time, which made for an exciting few months. 

What’s the worst part of your job?

Travelling to and from work on trains…

What’s the best part?

When you get a really exciting result from your experiment!  

If you weren’t a researcher what would your dream job be?

I really enjoy playing team sports so perhaps a professional athlete in a sports team.

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